Residents of Chambers County, Texas, were shocked and horrified last November, when a 59-year-old woman was attacked and killed by feral hogs in her front yard. Fortunately, attacks of this ferocity are very rare.
“From what little research we have found, there are less than six of these [attacks leading to death] that have been reported in the nation over the very many years in reporting these kind of deaths,” Chambers County Sheriff Brian Hawthorne said.
Wildlife officials in Texas are well aware that they have a problem with feral hogs. In early 2017, Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller approved the use of pesticides for the control of feral hogs. Of course, this raised many questions. What effect would it have on other species that feed on the hogs? What if a hunter killed a hog that had been poisoned?
After these questions came up, the Texas Agriculture Commissioner’s Office released a statement to a local television station.
“Kaput Feral Hog Bait has been researched extensively and field-tested in Texas over the past decade,” the statement read in part. “Hogs are susceptible to warfarin toxicity, whereas humans and other animals require much higher levels of exposure to achieve toxic effects. Non-target wildlife, livestock and domestic pets would have to ingest extremely large quantities over the course of several days to reach a toxic level of warfarin in the bloodstream. One person would have to eat 2.2 pounds of hog liver—where the warfarin is most concentrated in the body—to achieve the same exposure as a human would receive in one therapeutic dose of warfarin (current therapeutic levels range from 2 to 10 mg daily). In addition, hogs who have consumed the warfarin bait will have blue dye present in the fatty tissues as soon as 24 hours after ingestion. The more bait the hog has consumed, the brighter blue the tissues will be, signaling hunters that this hog has ingested the bait.”
Hogs first came to the New World in 1493 with Columbus, when he brought them to the West Indies. Later, explorers and settlers coming from Europe brought hogs with them as well, and turned them loose or kept them on the open range; by the middle of the eighteenth century, feral hogs were a part of the American landscape.
Feral hogs damage pastures, timber, agricultural crops and even wildlife plantings by rooting in them and destroying the plants and young trees. Their rooting also damages native habitats because the plants that evolved here aren’t adapted to recover from the rooting behavior of pigs. Biologists estimate that feral hogs do more than $800 million in agricultural damage annually.
The reproductive capability of hogs is nothing short of incredible. If you start with two boars and two sows and they have two litters a year with just six in each litter—litter sizes can range from four to 14—and if every piglet lives and produces young that live, in three years you have 16,000 pigs. Then that number goes up by an exponent of four every six months, because they’re reproductively mature at six months of age and start breeding between six and ten months.
Feral pigs also compete with native wildlife for food and other resources. Because they’re omnivores, they damage and destroy the eggs of ground-nesting birds, including turkeys and quail. In areas with large hog populations, biologists sometimes can see the effects on other species, including deer and other game, because hogs take resources other animals need to reach their full potential.
In 2015, the Southeast Cooperative Wildlife Disease Study (SCWDS) released a map showing how far hogs have spread through the U.S. The blue area shows where hogs were found in 1982, and the red area shows their range in 2015. Hogs have filled in most states of the Southeast. Some of that is natural range expansion, but some of it is from hunters (illegally) moving hogs around. Wildlife managers can tell illegal introductions are part of the problem by comparing the way hogs have expanded their range with the way that armadillos have expanded theirs. Armadillos—which no one transplants—expand methodically into adjacent areas. When they reach a big river, expansion pauses, then continues across the river in places that bridges cross the river. Hog expansion, on the other hand, includes isolated populations that “leapfrog” into new counties across habitat without hogs. Since pigs don’t fly, it’s clear they’re getting some help from people.
In Florida, hogs are found in all 67 counties. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) has long encouraged the hunting of hogs. In Florida, hogs may be trapped and hunted year-round with landowner permission. A hunting license is not required, and no permit is required to take hogs at night with a gun and light, as long as the hunter has landowner permission. There are no size or bag limits, and either sex may be taken.The various Wildlife Management Areas (WMA) each have their own regulations for hunting hogs, but seasons and bag limits are very liberal.
Alabama also has its share of hogs.
“Feral hogs are highly adaptable and quite prolific,” says Marianne Hudson, a wildlife biologist with the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. “Their presence on any landscape not only has the potential to cause large-scale property damage, but also means valuable food resources are being pirated from native wildlife species. Shooting hogs when the opportunity arises is important, but the use of hog traps is a more efficient and effective way to knock out pigs. Today’s advanced technology allows a landowner to view the scene on their smartphone and decide when to spring the trap, potentially catching an entire sounder at once. Erecting traps requires more of an upfront financial investment for equipment, but can pay off in results and the ease of man hours. If the landowner chooses not to utilize the pork provided by the hogs they’ve taken, it’s important to be mindful of their disposal. Coyotes are quick to scavenge pigs that are left to lay, and property managers need to ensure they’re not inadvertently supporting the life and reproduction of one undesirable with another.
Officials say that the “hog problem” we have in the U.S. is too deeply entrenched to be solved by individual states. Hogs don’t respect political boundaries, and between moving from state to state on their own and being transported by humans, they are spreading faster than state agencies can manage them. In 2014, the United States Department of Agriculture, Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) established the National Feral Swine Damage Management Program (NFSP). Although this program is only five years old, early efforts show some reduction in hog numbers in test areas where NFSP has been working; this program likely will be at least part of the answer to managing our hog population in the future.